In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gothic Architecture

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks and General Overviews
  • Early Historiography
  • International Perspectives on Late Gothic

Art History Gothic Architecture
Robert Bork, Marc Schurr
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0126


The architectural tradition now known as Gothic flourished across most of Europe throughout the later Middle Ages, producing spectacular structures that dominate their home cities even in the 21st century, such as the cathedrals of Chartres, Lincoln, Strasbourg, Milan, and Segovia. All of these buildings incorporate pointed arches, ribbed vaults, traceried windows, spires, pinnacles, and prominent buttresses, including flying buttresses. The development of these stereotypically Gothic features involved the bold extrapolation of motifs seen in the preceding Romanesque style. Although these period labels were not used in the Middle Ages, the Gothic mode was recognized as innovative when it first emerged in the 12th century, and it continued to be identified with the modern in the four centuries that followed. This mode first arose in northern France, and by the middle of the 13th century, French builders had created cathedrals and churches with daringly skeletal structures whose lightness would not be rivaled until the Industrial Revolution. Meanwhile, the fashion for Gothic forms had begun to spread across Europe so that the interplay between international currents and indigenous influences gave rise to a wide variety of national and regional styles. The Gothic mode achieved its fullest expression in the realm of church design, but even there its application was less than wholly systematic, and many important church buildings thus lack one or more of the features stereotypically associated with the style. Many forms originally developed in the context of church design, conversely, eventually became fashionable in secular construction, despite the different functional requirements of these building types. In the meantime, Gothic builders engaged in fruitful dialogue with makers of manuscripts, goldwork, stained glass, sculpture, and liturgical furniture, fostering the cross-medium exchange of ideas and motifs. The Gothic mode dominated European architectural production until the early 16th century, more than a century after the revival of Antique architectural fashions began in Renaissance Florence. The term “Gothic,” in fact, has its roots in the writings of Italian Renaissance authors who falsely associated this highly sophisticated late medieval tradition with the supposedly barbaric Goths who had sacked Rome a millennium earlier. Although profoundly misleading from a historical perspective, this terminology has endured, in part perhaps because it captures an idea of the Gothic as a foil to the classical tradition. Indeed, while the Gothic mode lost its leading position in the decades after 1500 because of the growing taste for Renaissance classicism, it enjoyed several afterlives in the following centuries, inspiring the designers of structures ranging from scrupulously historicizing neo-Gothic churches and university buildings to soaring skyscrapers. The Gothic tradition thus ranks among the most significant currents in the history of Western architecture. For sake of coherence, the present article considers only the development of the original Gothic tradition in medieval Europe, and for sake of concision it cites only books, with an emphasis on synthetic studies whose own bibliographies can serve as useful pointers to monographic studies and more specialized periodical literature.

Textbooks and General Overviews

The Gothic architectural tradition has been well studied and reasonably well documented in accessible textbook form. This article section on textbooks cites only a small selection of the recent syntheses available in English. Perhaps the most sweeping and detailed single-author survey of the subject is Frankl and Crossley 2000, originally published by Frankl in 1962 but updated by Crossley, who also contributed a valuable new introduction. Wilson 1990 traces the main line of Gothic church development in chronological order, while Coldstream 2002 and Scott 2003 offer thematic approaches with a somewhat wider scope. Among recent edited volumes, Toman 1999, Rudolph 2006, and Opačić and Timmermann 2011 provide particularly rich surveys of Gothic architecture and adjacent subfields.

  • Coldstream, Nicola. Medieval Architecture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    A small but sophisticated textbook in the thematically organized Oxford History of Art series, this book introduces students not only to Gothic architecture but also to its social contexts and symbolic meanings.

  • Frankl, Paul, and Paul Crossley. Gothic Architecture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

    Arguably the greatest synthetic study of Gothic architecture yet written, now combining the scope and insight of Frankl’s original text with the rigor of Crossley’s revisions, which make the notes and bibliography useful for scholars in the 21st century.

  • Opačić, Zoë, and Achim Timmermann, eds. Architecture, Liturgy, and Identity: Liber Amicorum Paul Crossley. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2011.

    A valuable collection of twenty-six essays covering a broad range of Gothic architectural subjects, with particular attention to the English, French, German, and Central European regions dear to the volume’s dedicatee, Paul Crossley.

  • Rudolph, Conrad, ed. A Companion to Medieval Art: Romanesque and Gothic in Northern Europe. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006.

    Although strictly dedicated neither to architecture nor to the Gothic era, this collection of thematic essays usefully situates Gothic architectural production within the larger context of late medieval art and visual culture.

  • Scott, Robert. The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

    A broadly synthetic interdisciplinary study that situates the “Cathedral Crusade” of the Gothic era into its social and institutional contexts, considering in turn the history of the period, the aesthetics of Gothic design, the nature of late medieval religious experience, and the place of cathedrals in their home communities.

  • Toman, Rolf, ed. Gothic: Architecture, Sculpture, Painting. Cologne: Könemann, 1999.

    A beautifully illustrated and impressively comprehensive survey of visual culture in the Gothic era, with a strong emphasis on architecture; it includes essays by leading scholars arranged by medium, period, and region. Because it was produced in Germany, it gives more attention to Germanic and Central European developments than most syntheses written in the Francophone and Anglophone worlds.

  • Wilson, Christopher. The Gothic Cathedral: The Architecture of the Great Church 1130–1530. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990.

    This lucid textbook offers an insightful, chronologically organized history of the main stream of Gothic architectural development, involving the construction of the most ambitious cathedrals, abbeys, and similar “great churches” from all across Europe.

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